|Roman Republican Coins and Books by Andrew McCabe
PRORAE and the CORVUS The Roman boarding bridge on Prow Bronzes. Antonio Morello
© Antonio Morello, 2012
In this web-essay I wish to outline some key points from my book PRORAE, La Prima Prua di Nave sulle Monete della Repubblica Romana, Origine di un simbolo imperituro del potere di Roma, un inno a Caio Duilio; Antonio Morello, Liberia Classica Editrice Diana, 2008.
The main purpose of the book PRORAE has been to make some new proposals for the types and dating of the aes grave series RRC 35, with the support of coins reviewed in a census taken over the last few years in addition to the corpus of Haeberlin. I will show that the series RRC 35 was produced shortly after 260 BC (in fact in 258 BC).
The first Punic war and the victory of Gaius Duilius
Before 260 BC Rome had few ships. Only for the first time, in 260 BC, Rome became involved in a naval engagement of some importance, with Mediterranean implications. From that date Rome became aware that she had the potential capacity, and opportunity for expansion, in the Mediterranean through use of a military fleet, and that she could be competitive with the strategic alliance game-playing of that time. The conquest of Antium, the establishment of Duumviri Navales in 311 BC (extraordinary officers appointed for the equipping of a fleet), the sporadic reports of raids along the coast of Campania, and of ships passing in front of Tarentum, were not by themselves sufficiently newsworthy to induce the issue of coins with naval types (that is, in place of the regular aes grave types showing a wide variety of reverse designs that were issued from about 300 BC onwards).
However a link between the first prow bronzes, RRC 35 (above example, McCabe coll.) with Gaius Duilius, the Roman politician and admiral involved in the first Punic war, is strong. It is worth noting in detail the prow pictured on these coins. We see that over the fighting bridge there is always an object that is absent on the other similar representations on coins and ships of other Mediterranean countries . Polybius has sometimes been accused of exaggerating the facts in his stories, and has not been very reliable on numismatic details, but he has never been criticized for the technical and strategic aspects that he gave us. Writing in the second century BC, living among the aristocratic and military elite of Rome, and with access to archival material and veterans whom he could interview, he was in a position to describe military matters in great detail. This included weapon systems, such as the famous corvus, which was a long-remembered system that had become famous in the minds of the Romans. Gaius Duilius was well known for his brilliance in the use of this weapon, which by tradition allowed the Romans to defeat the Carthaginians in their first great naval battle, the battle of Mylae in 260 BC. For this reason, in my view the corvus must be the item depicted on the deck of the coins, on top of the fighting bridge. In fact I have attempted to prove this point technically, in my book PRORAE, and to show that the prow bronzes, from the aes grave series RRC 35 onwards, were designed to perpetuate this epochal event for the Romans.
After winning the battle of Mylae, with the help of this device, Gaius Duilius returned to Rome triumphant with a large amount of booty (as is stated on an inscription on a rostral column, which says that the booty was distributed to the people in the form of bronze money). In fact, two years later, in 258 BC, Gaius Duilius was appointed censor, which role also included the management of the wealth of the state (a position that lasted 5 years). It is likely that at that time he coined the spoils of the battle of Mylae, with the aes grave series showing a prow on the reverse. Gaius Duilius' colleague in the censorship was Lucius Cornelius Scipio, who in 259 BC also won a major naval battle in the sea of Sardinia against the Carthaginians. The type of Janus can also be linked to Gaius Duilius, and in fact he built the temple at the Forum Holitorium (vegetable, herb and oil market) to thank Janus. The largest denomination, the As of RRC 35, shows the Janus type.
A comparison with iconographic depictions of ships in the Mediterranean shows, in other places, almost the same type of ship that appears on the Roman coins, and at the same time (mid-third century BC), but, significantly, without the items on top of the fighting platform which I belive represent the corvus.
I would like to briefly digress on the subject of weight, because it helps to support a terminus-post-quem for the prow bronzes. RRC 35 was produced on a weight standard 240 scruples, which is consistent with the various aes grave series dated by Crawford in RRC to the first Punic war onwards. Aside from RRC 35 and RRC 36, both produced to a 240 scruple standard, other large volume, aes grave series had previously been produced at an average weight of 300 scruples (337 grams, RRC 18), 288 scruples (324 grams, RRC 14), and 240 scruples (270 grams, RRC 24, 25, 27, which are dated by Crawford in RRC from the first Punic war onwards). Marcus Terentius Varro wrote that the as weighed one pound, of 288 scruples, prior to the start of the first Punic war (264 BC). Perhaps this specification meant that before the first Punic war the pound weighed a different amount, or that Varro did not know how much it weighed. In my view, before 264 BC, the pound weighed 300 scruples. There is some evidence for this (the weight of the as of RRC 18 as well as the aes grave series of Luceria and Venosa. All are clearly heavier than the traditionally assumed Roman pound of 288 scruples. Dionysius of Halicarnassus also mentions this figure). In order to standardise its weight system so as to be interchangeable with other measures, in particular with those in Magna Graecia, I believe that Rome adopted the, now generally accepted, pound weighing 288 scruples after the Pyrrhic war, which was quite close to their prior standard of 300 scruples. Further discussion on this topic can be found in my book PRORAE on page 123, but the important point to note is the reduction in weight of the As from 288 scruples to 240 scruples from the first Punic war onwards, a point which is in agreement with Crawford's dating of the 240 scruple-weight aes grave series from 265 BC onwards.
What Polybius wrote on the Corvus
Later in this essay I will lay out the evidence for my views, but first, let us read the words of Polybius (Polybius, I, 22, 3-11, trans. H.T.Wallinga, The Boarding Bridge of the Romans, 1956). "Because their ships were inferior in build and slow-moving, someone suggested to them, as a help in the battle, the machines that afterwards were named 'corvus', of which the construction was like this: A round pole stood on the prow, four fathoms long and three palms in diameter. That pole had a tackle-block at the top. Round it was put up a ladder, on which cross-planks had been nailed, so the result was a gangway, four feet wide and six fathoms long. The aperture in the planking was oblong and it went round the pole right after the first two fathoms of the ladder. The gangway also had a railing along each of its long sides, as high as a man's knee. At its end something like a pointed pestle was attached, made of iron, at the upper end of which there was a ring, so that the whole looked like the machines used in the working of corn. To that ring was fastened a rope, with which, as soon as the ships charged, they raised the corvus by means of the tackle-block on the pole and dropped them on the deck of the enemy ship, sometimes forward, sometimes bringing them around to meet flank attacks. As soon as the corvus was fixed in the planks of the decks, and joined the ships together, if they met side-to-side they sprang on board from all sides, but if they met prow-to-prow, they made their attack over the corvus itself, two abreast. The men who led the way protected the front by holding up their shields, and those who followed covered the flanks by resting the rims of their shields on the railing. Having, then, adopted this device, they waited for an opportunity to give battle."
I now would like to give some specific extracts from my book PRORAE, which focus on the corvus as depicted on Roman coins.
PRORAE (page 34)
Medas, in La Marineria Cartginese, le Navi, gli Uomini, la Navigazione (2000), p. 198, often refers to 'Polybian exaggerations' in describing the battles of the First Punic War, while supporting the validity of some stories and justifying the reasons for the exaggerations in the uproar that the war caused to the Romans who had, for the first time, the ability to prevail at sea over the Carthaginians. The same scholar, referring to the 'corvus' and summarising his thoughts, considering also the views of other scholars, adds: "It is certainly true that the Carthaginians seemed excessively surprised when faced with this war machine, considering that other boarding systems had already existed for some time and were probably well known even to the Punic fleets". But we can hardly attribute to Polybius the construction of a completely fake story, accompanied by names, details and measures. It seems difficult to believe that Polybius would have drawn up a false narrative only a century later, given that the memory of the events of the first Punic War, including the victory of Gauis Duilius, occupied a very prominent place in the memory of the Roman people, and not only in the official historical records. We might speculate, however, that on this occasion Polybius has amplified reality, presenting what was a normal action of boarding as an extraordinary operation that left stunned even the most expert Carthaginian captains. The presence of the 'corvus' could be read as an absolute novelty by considering its most novel element. The real news, was perhaps, merely the fact that for the first time the new runways (the corvus) allowed for armed boarding parties to reach the enemy ship in a stable manner, with a maneuvering system that allowed for a more secure deployment than the previously used ladders.
The later first Punic war, naval upsets, and ship design
PRORAE (pages 37-38)
The naval victory of Mylae marked a memorable turning point in the history of Rome: "The Romans, contrary to all expectations, could conceive the hope of obtaining supremacy at sea" (Polybius, I, 24). The victory of Gaius Duilius made the Romans aware of the importance of having a competitive military fleet. By this time Rome had expended much energy in the preparation of military ships; the battles that followed allowed the Romans to gain experience so as to be able to seriously compete with Carthage. After Mylae, the Romans made naval expeditions to Sardinia and Corsica, where the consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio defeated the Carthaginians in 259 BC. Then he made for Africa, facing the enemy fleet off Cape Ecnomus (location on the headland of the southwest coast of Sicily, near modern Licata) in the summer of 256 BC. According to Polybius (I, 26): "Even without being an eyewitness, but just hearing about, I felt affected by the severity of the battle and the extraordinary power that both cities demonstrated by fielding such a multitude of men and ships". This was the greatest naval battle ever recorded by the ancient history, both in the number of vessels involved (680, according to estimates by Polybius), and number of men on board (about 290,000). Even if the absolute numbers quoted by Polybius were probably exaggerated, this sea battle was considered in ancient times to have been one of the largest. The tactics adopted by the consuls Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso are described in detail by Polybius. In the end, the battle ended in favor of the Romans who lost 24 ships. They sank 30 enemy ships and captured, complete with crews, as many as 64, while no Roman ships fell into enemy hands.
The same year the Romans landed in Africa, achieving important successes, but, coming to Carthage, the Roman army was defeated and Atilius Regulus was captured . In 255 BC the Romans won another major naval battle at Cape Hermes. The winners went to Africa to collect the survivors of the expedition of 256 BC. When ships were in sight of the coast of Sicily they were caught by a storm of exceptional violence and of 364 ships, they were left with 80. Polybius said that "there is no example in history of a single maritime disaster more serious than this." In 254 BC the Romans took Panormus. At the beginning of 253 BC they attempted another expedition to Africa with 260 ships but on their return they were overtaken by a storm that caused a loss of more than 150 ships.
During this period, in the view of Polybius, the Romans had grown to consider themselves invincible at sea and thus acted irresponsibly. Their proud attitude went well against human opponents, but the Roman commanders did not listen to warning signs and inauspicious omens against the forces of nature, and thus chose to cross to Sicily to Africa "between the rising of Orion and Sirius" (Polybius, I,37).
The years that followed were not favorable to the Roman fleet: the suffered shipwrecks and even a defeat in Trapani. The high costs for construction of ships prompted the Senate to suspend construction, and limit the fleet size to only 60 units, in support of the army and to patrol the coast. The disastrous shipwrecks of these years caused more losses than in all the naval battles faced by the Romans in that war. The warships were built for the sole purpose of fighting, so a light weight was required for maneuverability. This meant that the submerged part of the hull was minimal, jeopardizing the stability. Furthermore, the heavy weight of the forward superstructure (the fighting platform including various combat forces and required armor, and perhaps also the corvus) compromised stability as well as maneuverability. Therefore, although these weapons may have been deadly in battle, they were a very bad arrangement for long voyages or in stormy seas.
In all likelihood the workers involved in the construction of ships, mindful of these negative experiences, built their ships as safe as possible, eliminating technical defects where they could, and reducing the weight of the forward structure, probably, among other things, eliminating the corvus, which now fell into disuse. The corvus, given its effectiveness in battle, might have been redesigned to make it lighter and more manageable, but it certainly disappeared over time. Pictures of ships on coins from the late second century BC onwards no longer show it.
The Corvus on Roman Republican bronzes
PRORAE (pages 68-69 and 71)
Consider the earlier illustrated example of a so-called libral as of RRC 35 with prow right (coll. McCabe), or indeed the above illustrated RRC 36 as with prow left (British Museum examples). You can see there is an instrument on top of the fighting platform that has, towards the rear of the ship, an inverted U-shaped object (on RRC 35) or a pin (on RRC 36). This instrument, iconographically unique, is represented on almost all the prow bronzes of the Roman Republic from the third and second centuries BC. It consists of a central part that on the coins is usually quadrangular in shape and sometimes has a triangular top, thus making it pentagonal. I illustrate two examples below, with and without the peak. To this element are apparently connected two bars. The one towards the stern is longer, and is always horizontal. The shorter bar at the prow end is sometimes portrayed at an angle. This object has hardly been considered before by scholars, however it is important, from a technical and numismatic point of view, because it also helps to define the terminus post quem of the earliest coins issued with the type of prow, the aes grave bronzes of RRC 35.
Some scholars have suggested other solutions. Zehnacker thinks it may be a capstan. But how can a capstan of this size, occupying the whole deck of the bow, in the highest part of the ship, that used for attacks on the enemy, be of such a large size in a ship designed to fight? Various weight reductions of the prow bronzes result in the depiction of the instrument becoming gradually more stylized, so that in the end it might be taken for a capstan, but the earlier representations of the instrument are of more historical significance.
The most accurate representation then must certainly be that on the earliest cast aes grave coins, and later representations on struck bronzes must represent only a stylized version of the object shown on the aes grave. The uniqueness of this depiction, which is seen only on coins of the Roman Republic, and not on images of ships from other ancient regimes, suggests an object that was in use only among the Romans. The fact that the object disappeared from the coins over time suggests that only the earliest and most accurate representations should be considered in deciding what the object is.
Starting from the consideration that it is located on the fighting deck, it can be assumed to be an object that either had to be removed during the battle to make way for the soldiers and, therefore, something useful for navigation, or else it had to be a necessary instrument in the battle, i.e. a weapon. It seems to be too small an object to be a foresail, placed on the bridge with its mast, especially considering that it was normal to leave the foresail on shore, if at all possible (as it would be an obstacle in battle), rather than on deck. So a laid-down mast and sail would not be a normal configuration, either when sailing or during battle. It can also hardly represent an anchor.
The object is most clearly visible in semilibral coins, RRC 38, such as shown above, however, I do not think that this 'best' representation can give the real image of that object. Carefully comparing coins of the semilibral series RRC 38 with what appears on the prows represented in the aes grave series RRC 35 and RRC 36, we notice some differences (which do not substantially change the technical aspects). I would conclude that its most faithful reproduction is on the RRC 35 or RRC 36 aes grave issues, and propose that the instrument is the famous corvus, described by Polybius.
Fusi Rosetti, 'Le Zecche Militari Romane nel III sec. a.C.', in RIN 1989, reaches the same conclusion; 'on the bridge of the prow series of aes grave, which commemorated the naval victory at Mylae in 260 BC, you see for the first time the corvus' ... 'the prow was to remain the dominant motif on the bronze coins throughout the Republican period, a witness to the absolute dominion of Rome on the seas, the great efforts of the Roman people, and the strong psychological attachment that the people had to these naval victories'. Avila, 'Atlante delle Navi Greche e Romane', 2002, also notes that "on the coins of the Republican era, representing the prow of the ship and probably symbolising the victory of Mylae, we see clearly on the prow a small forecastle that hosted the corvus". Note also that this instrument does not appear on Greek coins, except that of Antigonus Gonatas, after his victory in 258 BC at Cos, and thus also of this time period.
So, if this object is the corvus, it would be placed on the bridge ready to be used in case of attack. This deduction, which must be considered merely a proposal (in my opinion quite likely), likely relates to the commemorative aspect of the RRC 35 aes grave coins issued for the first time after the Roman victories over Carthaginian ships at Mylae in 260 BC. In later coin issues the object was sometimes misrepresented, at times far from the early portrayals, perhaps because the corvus was by then unknown, in its original form, by the next generation of engravers.
PRORAE pag. 118-119
A quinquereme (a typically large ship that we would expect to carry the corvus) was less than 40 meters long (from the rostrum to the aplustre or stern decoration) and about 6 meters wide (including the width of the protruding oar protections). The corvus described by Polybius was a little more than 10 meters, and supposedly located at the prow. So this instrument must have a length of about one-third of the ship itself. Looking at the coins and other representations, it can be deduced that the length of the fighting deck (at the prow) was about one-third of the vessel. The fighting deck was the highest point on the ship, except for the small superstructure aft where the pilot steers, and was used by soldiers to hurl objects at the enemy and to have a dominant position on the ship, in case of boarding. It also avoided cluttering the deck below, where other maneuvers needed to take place. The fighting deck is best represented on coins of the semilibral standard, however by that time, and on all later coins, the depiction of the corvus had already been profoundly stylized so as to look like a small house or turret.
Recent reconstructions of the corvus (such as by Wallinga, 1956), performed on the basis of the detailed description of Polybius, put it at prow, suspended by a pulley system to a wooden beam. Such a structure, with its size and weight, would clearly have been uncomfortable to have in place whilst sailing. Imagine how much instability, in the navigation and maneuvering of the ship, could be created by a structure so heavy, if it were erected at the prow during sailing. Note however that Polybius never wrote that it was kept erected during sailing, although modern reconstruction often inaccurately show it in that manner.
The corvus, if kept erected, would also would have been a hindrance during engagements, when the soldiers on the fighting deck had to throw all possible missiles onto the enemy ships, prior to boarding. So it is my opinion that the corvus is depicted on Roman coins in a horizontal position on the fighting deck, in its entire length, and it was raised only when needed in the case of a boarding action. Analyzing the figure of the alleged corvus on the coins, one can easily observe a kind of planking, represented by a bold line, which is supported by a relatively small pin, which would be the fulcrum of rotation. The long arm of the plank, on the left of the fulcrum in its coin representations (except for the prow-left RRC 36 or RRC 41 types where of course everything is reversed), represents about two-third its length. The remaining third (possibly weighted as a counterbalance) could be used to operate the corvus, to swing it around and throw it on the deck of the enemy ship. On the RRC 35 aes grave series the pin, or fulcrum, is generally represented by a small robust pole or an inverted U-shape. In subsequent coin series the pin or fulcrum appears as a kind of box, , but even on the latest bronzes, such as the above As issued by C.Fonteius in 114 BC, the idea of a fulcrum, a long boarding platform to the left, and a operating counterbalance at right, can still be seen.
Perhaps originally the corvus was effectively supported and driven by an elevated pulley arrangement, but space limitations on a ship might have suggested a better and less cumbersome instrument, using a fulcrum to rotate the corvus onto the enemy ship. Of course we should consider that Polybius may have himself devised the idea of the elevated arrangement, which might never have corresponded to reality. The rotating corvus, on a fulcrum, is certainly simpler, and that is what seems to be shown on the coins. Note, finally, that in the passage of Polybius on the description of the corvus, at one point he says "... the instrument as a whole was similar to those machines that are used to grind corn". Of course this brings to mind a rotating device. Any other comment I leave to the reader's thoughts.
Antonio Morello © 2012
Comments by Andrew McCabe
I would like to first thank Antonio, very sincerely, both for the excellent work he has done on this subject and the book he as written, but also for sharing with me, through a long series of personal correspondence, his views on the prow design bronzes. He did so in a very gentle and persuasive manner, acknowledged the degree of doubt that remained, and urged me to be cautious about giving definitive answers on this subject. But I think Antonio should be less modest; he has, in my view, hit on a simple solution for a topic that has baffled numismatists for centuries, and done so through very careful research and the examination of large number of coins. The solution feels right to me, as regards the mechanical engineering of the original design, the correspondence with coin types, and the graphic design elements. To help illustrate the solution, I have created a couple of diagrams which I show below. These are my interpretations of Antonio's good work, so if misinterpreted, then the mistakes are mine alone, but these diagrams are how I now visualise the designs on all Roman Republican bronzes. It feels as if my eyes have been opened for this first time.
Andrew McCabePRORAE - What Polybius wrote on the Corvus PRORAE - The later first Punic war, naval upsets, and ship design PRORAE - The Corvus on Roman Republican bronzes Comments by Andrew McCabe
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